This one’s for the women.
When I was growing up, for a silly while there, I refused to call myself a feminist. I didn’t know any better at the time. Living in a super conservative community, the only thing my history classes had taught me about feminism was bra burning, and as a teen who developed early, I needed my bras, thank you very much. (I wish I was kidding.)
Then I got to college. It didn’t take long for my views on the f-word to change. OF COURSE I was a feminist. YES to pay equality. YES to reproductive rights. YES to bodily autonomy. FUCK YOU rape culture. I was a loud, proud, in your face feminist determined to raise my daughter as such.
When I left college and began writing in earnest, though, that badge of honor grew heavier and more cumbersome. The bright and shiny feminism that had so inspired me now seemed strikingly white, painfully straight, and more than a little out of touch with the times. I was uncomfortable watching women with skin like mine telling women of color to pipe down and get in line. I remember my horror when learning about Sangers’ eugenics and the “lavender menace.”
I tried to quell my misgivings with self-assurances that it was all just a part of “growing pains” for the movement, but in the past several months, I’ve grown more uncomfortable still. The pace of that growth in an era where technology gives us the ability to connect and learn from each other in an unprecedented manner seems exceedingly slow.
I’ve watched TSwift and Miley spouting the feminist version of #AllLivesMatter as women of color in the industry lamented racial disparity. I’ve watched Meryl Streep don a shirt proclaiming, “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave,” before she today shrugged off film festival diversity laments by saying, “We’re all Africans.” I’ve watched people complain about Jenner receiving attention that should be reserved for “real women.” I’ve watched women of color criticizing Sanders lambasted by men and women supporting him for advancing the “politics of division.” I’ve watched Gloria Steinem tell me that I’m only supporting Sanders for the boys. I’ve watched Madeline Albright tell me there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support Clinton while the candidate herself laughed. I’ve watched feminist friends who I respect echo the same damn things with condescension that sounds a whole lot like, “GET OFF MY LAWN” while younger voices ignore entirely the historic moment we face in today’s political climate.
And you know what I think? I think there’s a special place in hell for this kind of tone deaf feminism: this feminism that says the experiences of women are homogeneous, this feminism that thinks the movement needs a singular voice, this feminism that tells people saying otherwise to shut up and sit down.
I am all for empowering women. I am there for the ongoing battles and the battles we’ve yet to wage. But we’re going to lose the war if we keep trying to corral people onto this path that ignores the battles going on to our left and right, because that strategy leaves a lot of people behind.
You may not see color, but the economy sure does. Unemployment rates for white women in the last quarter of 2015 may have been at 4%, but it was 6.7% for Hispanic and Latina women, and 8% for Black women. White women may make $0.78 to a white man’s dollar, but Black women make $0.68 on the dollar, and Hispanic and Latina women bring in only $0.54 on the dollar. And these figures can vary dramatically by region, state, and city.
And violence against women of color is not just structural. It’s estimated that 17.7% of white women will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, but the numbers are worse for women of color. Approximately 40% of Black women report encountering coercive sexual activity by the age of 18, and it is estimated that for every Black woman who reports a rape, there are 15 that do not. Anti-immigrant vitriol can frequently discourage Hispanic and Latina women from reporting, regardless of immigration status. But migrant workers know all too well the dangers they face, with more than half a million women calling the fields they work “fields of panties” due to the prevalence of unchecked sexual assault.
And there are other issues that are distinctly important for women of color that white women may not give a lot of thought to in the end. Black women are eight times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated, while Hispanic and Latina women are four times more likely to face jail time. When women of limited means face the legal system, they overwhelming lose.
It’s not just about color, though; sexuality and gender identity can play a significant role in risk factors, too. Half of bisexual women and more than 64% of transwomen will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. It’s estimated that at least 20% of homeless youth are members of the LGBT community, and 41% of transwomen will attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
Let’s not forget age, either. Young women today identify as feminist in record levels. They may not have experienced the battles faced by their foremothers on the ground level, or the days before Roe v. Wade, or a world without women in politics, but they face a new set of demons. They’re the ones punching up in the face of widespread digital harassment. They’re the ones born into an economy ruined by those that came before them, a climate exacerbating the gender gap in the workforce. And their voices, in today’s political climate, are chastised for not directly aligning with women in leadership on all issues, the assumption beneath it all being that they’re not smart enough/informed enough to know what’s what. Silly little girls.
That doesn’t mean that older women don’t have unique struggles. They know, perhaps better than most, exactly what’s on the line today because it’s what they sacrificed so much for in their younger days, and are frustrated when young women remain apathetic. They’ve been hit hard by the economic downturn, as well, with wiped out retirement savings pushing them back into a workforce that doesn’t know what to do with them. Their ballooning healthcare costs are nearly incomprehensible to many younger women with relatively more robust health. The bottom line: age matters no matter which side of the spectrum you’re on.
And how about a shout out to the often dismissed women with disabilities? These are women who are statistically far more likely than other women to be assaulted, unemployed, and discriminated against, but you won’t hear much about them in feminist cannon. From forced sterilization to police violence against those with mental illness to feminist events that consistently fail to accommodate those with special needs, women with disabilities are left out in the cold at every single turn. They’re footnotes. It’s repulsive.
The point of this very surface level collection of differences is to highlight that every woman’s experience in life is unique. It’s going to be influenced by their race, their income, their sexuality, their gender identity, their location, and more. Those experiences are important, and the stories they tell should inform that fight instead of being pushed to the side if we want changes that actually make a difference. Those experiences are going to foster unique perspectives that shed light in the gaps that pepper our own. Those experiences make women as a collective so much stronger.
To argue that a feminism that does not recognize these differences and raise up the distinctive voices who can speak to them is somehow representative of the women it purports to support is breathtaking in its idiocy. When the movement and its figureheads say we only need to hear from someone that looks like them, loves like them, lives like them, they make it clear that this is not about fighting for women; it’s about fighting for women like them. It’s a demonstration of a willingness to sacrifice the women not like them to advance themselves.
So stop telling women they’re distracting from the cause when they voice an experience that deviates from the central narrative. Stop telling women they’re traitors when they dare to criticize the mainstream feminist culture. Stop telling women that the only way they can be supportive of women is if they support your woman. Stop telling women the battle they’re fighting doesn’t matter.
Just stop. Listen. It’s the only way the war gets won.